Athletes who understand the purpose and effects of their training regimen tend to perform better because they have context and a sense of direction for their development. In light of this, we found it useful to discuss relevant physiological changes that occur post-resistance training so that athletes and coaches can be more cognizant of how to train smart. Let’s dive into the hormonal and neural shifts that occur during resistance training, and why all athletes, regardless of position, distance, or event, can benefit from a smart strength program.
Hormones play a significant role in muscle hypertrophy and strength development.
They broadly regulate growth, development, and reproduction, as well as increase the body’s capacity to handle physical stress1. Hormones ultimately create these changes by altering protein synthesis. Hormone production during exercise can vary; factors such as overtraining, nutrition, and sleep can affect your body’s ability to release a healthy dose. Anabolic hormones produced in your body like testosterone and growth hormone contribute to protein synthesis in the muscle2. Anabolic effects include accelerated growth of muscle, bone, and red blood cells, and increased neural conduction, all of which help athletes build strength and develop athleticism.
All Athletes Need Resistance Training
A smart strength program will ensure athletes execute movements with sufficient resistance and complexity to elicit a physiological response.
Gone are the days of high rep, lightweight exercises, as the pioneer of functional sports movement Vern Gambetta fondly refers to as “garbage strength” 3. Distance athletes need not fear of “bulking up” while trying to build strength, as this is actually hard to do given the genetics of a distance athlete (it’s hard to bulk up even for the athletes who try to do so with high protein and creatine intake). Athletes should develop the same general adaptations as that of a sprint athlete profile—that extra bit of force production, greater speed, and higher efficiency applies not only to sprinting but also to stop-and-go and endurance endeavors. Not all athletes will use the same resistance or conduct the same exercises, but the general benefits of this training will be similar. To understand this, let’s run through how the body adapts to training and the kind of movements athletes should execute.
Hormonal + Neural Adaptations Under Resistance
Resistance training creates acute hormonal and neural adaptations.
The hormonal adaptation is the release of anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone that are involved in muscle hypertrophy. The “neural” adaptation refers to the brain’s ability to recruit muscles for a movement, especially when the body is slightly fatigued. By practicing an exercise under resistance, your brain figures out how to fire the correct muscles to achieve the desired movement. More complex movements involving the whole body demand greater muscle recruitment to complete the exercise. A deep squat will yield greater gain for an athlete than a biceps curl because the squat requires hamstrings, hips, glutes, quads, core, and more to complete the movement. Moreover, a deep squat done when the body is slightly fatigued will teach the brain to recruit muscles when it normally doesn’t. This adaptation would be useful at the end of a race, game or event, when your strength normally begins to wane. This becomes a cycle: resistance train, teach the brain to fire muscles even under fatigue, release hormones that lead to protein synthesis, build strength, adapt to the resistance, etc.
Resistance Train the Smart Way
As much as overtraining is a definite red flag for athletes, underdoing it in your strength program is too. Many athletes go through their strength movements without a sense of urgency or cadence, or they use too light a resistance in fear of bulking up. You will have a greater hormonal response and build more new motor pathways by executing your training around 60-80% of 1RM (RM is the max resistance you can do given one repetition) 3. More qualitatively, you should be getting through 6-8 reps of a given exercise where the last couple reps are challenging, yet you are not going to fail. As always, technique takes priority over increasing your resistance.
Sufficient Velocity of Movement
During each rep, athletes need to move through the exercise with sufficient velocity. You’re developing a highly neural pathway (brain-body connection), so to reap any benefits that can apply to performance you need to move with the appropriate speed. Athletes may need to go down in resistance to ensure they can move with enough velocity.
Whole body exercises are simply more functional. They more closely approximate the neuromuscular demand of movements in sports because they require coordination among several muscle groups to achieve a movement. Basics like squats, lunges, and pushups demand complexity and teach the brain to fire all the muscles necessary, whereas isolated movements only fire one muscle group at a time. Athletes can focus on full body movements to develop strength in the general strength phase of their season, and then simply maintain the motor pathways with fewer reps or rounds later in the season.
Hormonal and neural adaptations occur during resistance training. Ensure your athletes use moderate to high resistance in whole-body, functional exercises, and move deliberately with every rep!
2. Robergs, R. A. and Roberts, S. O. (1997). Exercise physiology: Exercise, performance, and clinical applications. Mosby, St. Louis.
3. Episode 3: Strength training- Myths, misconceptions, and application for distance runners https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/magness-marcus-on-coaching/id961516002